Grey City (Cidade Cinza): Film Review

Vibrant street art makes for a lively if limited doc.

Marcelo Mesquita and Guilherme Valiengo meet Sao Paulo graffiti artists who are celebrated everywhere except in their home town.

MONTREAL – Taking viewers to a city whose graffiti talent is renowned among street-art connoisseurs but less beloved by City Hall, Grey City finds its drama embodied in a huge stretch of wall -- once filled with art, then erased -- leading into a heavily trafficked highway underpass. Marcelo Mesquita and Guilherme Valiengo take this controversy as an excuse to get to know the city's underground stars in a lively doc that will please fans of the global graffiti scene but lacks the broader appeal of Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop.

A few of these painters, after early exposure on the illicit surfaces of their hometown, have found gallery success and lucrative commissions in cities around the world. We meet the identical-twin artists who go by the name Os Gemeos; the creator of distinctively childlike characters called Nina; and Ise, whose style is more reminiscent of the exaggerated letterforms that once decorated New York City subway cars.

As the painters discuss the philosophical ramifications of an art that is owned by no one and competes with the barrage of advertising imagery that's legally shoved into city-dwellers' consciousnesses, the film tells the story of the wall. There, a handful of prominent artists had each added labor-intensive pieces that fit into a larger mural; it was loved by the drivers who saw it every morning, we're told, until a city crew painted over it. After a public outcry, officials gave permission (but not money) to re-adorn the wall.

Scenes of the intense repainting effort and interviews shot during breaks from work alternate with ride-alongs with a clean-up crew. This gang of outsourced City Hall contractors is a kind of institutionalized art criticism: Having been told to wash grey paint over any tags that aren't "artistic," they decide for themselves which illegal works are pretty and which aren't -- sometimes defacing a composition by wiping out a crucial element that isn't to their liking.

As much as interviews with journalists and gallery owners, this footage offers a sense of the city's personality, where lip-service must be given to the idea of a people's art but the petty exercise of power remains. When Sao Paulo's mayor comes to the official unveiling of the repainted mural, his discomfort with general questions about graffiti policy speaks volumes.

Production Company: Sala12 Filmes

Directors: Marcelo Mequita, Guilherme Valiengo

Screenwriters: Peppe Siffredi, Marcelo Mesquita

Producers: Marcelo Mesquita, Peppe Siffredi, Raphael Bottinom, Guilherme Valiengo

Director of photography: Tiago Tambelli

Music: Criolo Doido, Daniel Ganjaman

Editor: Felipe Lacerda

No rating, 79 minutes